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The Myth of Learning Styles

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Learning styles, the photo says it all. Every 10-year-old learns best using IR. Really. Ask any of them.

Learning styles refer to the idea that students learn best when the information is presented in a manner that matches their self-reported learning style. There have been unending frameworks developed describing and categorizing various learning styles. The most common ones divide learning styles into three or four categories: auditory, visual, read/write, and kinesthetic learners. Some list seven, a couple identify thirteen. One had thirty different styles. Yikes!

Almost everyone is at least tacitly familiar with the concept of learning styles and the four categories. And today, it is estimated that 90% of us believe it's all true.

There is no way to say this gently, so I'll just rip off the bandage. There is no scientific evidence to support the idea of learning styles (Kirschner 2017, Pashler 2008, Simmonds 2014). I googled "research in favor of learning styles".... nothing....other than research demonstrating the opposite of its claims.

Truth is, there is a library of research studies that has been conducted over the past fifty years on the validity of the claims of learning styles. And they all agree: neither learning styles nor learning preferences enhance learning. Shocking? It was to me.

There is one thing the research has found that does enhance learning, and Paradigm Learning majors on it, "meaning". If study material means something to the student, if they can connect what they are learning to their experiences, goals, interests or passions, learning rooted in those is effective, long term, and if you can imagine, exciting once again.

But no, learning styles do not improve learning. In fact, experts call learning styles a myth.

Then where did it all come from?

As I mentioned, the idea has been around for a long time. But the concept of learning styles was popularized in the early 90's.

In April, 2018, the Atlantic published an article on this topic. They wrote, "In the early ’90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of observing 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently?"

From his research he developed the popular VARK model (visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic) and the VARK questionnaire. Experts aren’t sure how the concept spread, but it might have had something to do with the self-esteem movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Everyone was special—so everyone must have a special learning style, too.

The Atlantic article cited several studies. In a study published in March of 2018, in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Husmann, a professor at Indiana State University, and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. "The survey then gave them some study strategies that correlated with the learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, but those who did study in a way suitable to their style didn’t do any better on their tests."

Another study published a year prior in the British Journal of Psychology found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But "those preferences had no correlation to that which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures."

In a conversation with Olga Kazhan, author of the Atlantic article, Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, referenced another study that was published in 2009. In it, he said, "people who said that they liked to think visually or verbally really did try to think that way. Self-proclaimed visualizers tried to create an image, and self-proclaimed verbalizers tried to form words. But, there was a rub. If you’re a visualizer and I give you pictures, you don’t remember pictures any better than anyone who says they’re a verbalizer.” So, consistent with other research, even preferences do not improve learning.

Willingham, after a thorough review of the literature on learning styles concluded, "In other words, there’s evidence that people do try to treat tasks in accordance with what they believe to be their learning style, but it doesn’t help them. Learning style theories have not panned out. This doesn’t mean everyone is equally good at every skill, of course. People have different abilities, not styles".

I don't want to bore you with dozens more studies and hundreds of citations, so I'll only reference one more for those with added interest in this idea. This video is a Ted Talk given by Tesia Marshik, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She explains the findings of her own research as well as others', and like the others, found the idea of learning styles to be a myth, and that students learn best when the material has meaning to them. Learning must connect to the student's life to enhance learning.

I'll simply conclude with this: while it is universally agreed that learners can develop preferences for studying and processing material, there is no evidence that students learn better through either a preferred way to learn or a supposed learning style. Instead, each person learns in a variety of ways. Learning is best when students find meaning in what they are learning and, as in every other endeavor in life, it is coupled with discipline, hard work, practice, and habit. I know, that may not be as exciting as learning styles, but at least it's real.

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